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The old college try - in court

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 15, 2008

By the time oral arguments opened yesterday at the Supreme Court of Virginia, the importance of the battle over Randolph-Macon Woman's College in Lynchburg — Randolph College, as the newly co-educational school's trustees and president now call it — was clear enough. A new "stakeholder" mentality is emerging among the financial supporters of American universities in recent years. This is to the good. The typical American university today is not very accountable to either students or donors. If it takes lawsuits to rein in empire-building administrators, nutty faculty or runaway boards, so be it.

This historic women's college dating to 1891 went coeducational in 2006. In this age of dwindling single-sex education, the move angered many alumnae. As it happens, coeducation arrived shortly after a major capital campaign. The sequence struck many as a bait-and-switch tactic. Many donors who thought they were supporting a unique single-sex educational institution felt cheated. Two groups sued. They have their time in court this week; a decision is expected in June. Even if the plaintiffs lose, the lawsuit will have accomplished something important. This suit and half a dozen others around the country together have helped send a message to university administrators that they must do a significantly better job adhering to the terms of the gifts that underwrite their activities.

The big test of the "donor intent" movement remains the imbroglio over Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, in which the school has embarrassed itself with a paper trail of incompetence, deceit and inattention. In 1961, Princeton received a $35 million gift from Charles Robertson, an alumnus and heir to the A&P grocery fortune, to create what was supposed to be the nation's training ground for a new cadre of government servants. A special emphasis on foreign affairs was intended. But today, the school sends only a handful of graduates to federal service and an even smaller number to the foreign-policy agencies of the U.S. government. The family of the late Mr. Robertson sued with the intention of redistributing the money where it would be more properly used. The gift today is valued at $900 million.

College administrators around the country are watching the Princeton case for precedents. Depending on what a New Jersey court decides, a new standard could be set for donor activism in cases where colleges fail their donors' standards.

Insofar as these cases bring checks and balances to the American university, which sorely needs them, they are to the good.